What is design thinking? UX Question #81

Watch on YouTube

YouTube player

Listen to the podcast

Read the transcript

Sasha from Fresno asks: What is design thinking?

I love that question. Thanks for asking, Sasha. This is UX Question number 81 and I am Ben Judy.

What is design thinking? Well, design thinking is a specific design process that is useful for tackling wicked problems with a human-centric approach.

In practical terms, design thinking is a five-step process. Step one is empathy, understanding the user’s needs and motivations through user research. The second step is to define problem statements based on your research. Third is ideation, which involves brainstorming and generating a large number of ideas about the nature of the problem and potential solutions. Step four is prototyping. You create rough approximations of your solution ideas. The final step is to test your prototypes with users as quickly and cheaply as possible. Then you refine and improve the ideas based on user feedback.

So, design thinking is a highly iterative, generative, and creative approach with five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. And it’s a process that anyone can use. You don’t have to be a “designer” by profession to be a design thinker. Sort of like how the scientific method can be used by anyone, even if you’re not a vocational or academic scientist.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, “design thinking” became a buzzy term. Consultants started selling it, and business leaders started using this term without understanding how or when to execute it to greatest effect. It became the hot thing for an ‘innovative’ company to do. And suddenly, design thinking didn’t mean anything anymore, it was just a phrase you said when you wanted to sound cutting-edge.

I think many people began using the term “design thinking” as a rough synonym for User Experience Design or Human Centered Design—without deep understanding of what any of those things should really look like as a professional practice.

But if you’re going to do it right, design thinking is a good approach to tackle wicked problems. Problems that are confusing, ill-defined, with unknown unknowns. Not something that has obviously been solved before.

Dr. Richard Buchanan wrote about this in his 1992 paper “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”—see links in the description.

If you are designing a basic ecommerce website, don’t use the design thinking method. It’s been done before. You can rely on proven best practices and less speculative UX design processes for such a well-defined problem space.

If you’re trying to solve for a wicked problem like access to healthy food in an urban food desert, design thinking might be a good approach. Because there isn’t even agreement on the root problems. With design thinking you can begin by understanding and empathizing with the people affected in that ambiguous problem space.

Keep asking your questions about UX. Next time, I’ll answer the question: How can UX Designers and Product Managers collaborate effectively?

Referenced in this episode:

Support UX Questions

Visit us on Patreon and check out the great perks at each level of support!

Become a sponsor

You can advertise your products or services—our promote yourself as a UX professional—by sponsoring episodes of UX Questions! See the Sponsor page for details.

Hire Ben Judy

Ben is available for consulting engagements as a workshop facilitator, mentor, design coach, and more! See the Ben page for details.